Motion for Reprisal for Detention of Henry Laurens
MS (NA: PCC, No. 19, III, 427–28). Written by JM. Docketed, “Motion of Mr. Madison Decr 3. 1781” and “referred to the Com: appointed to Confer wth G. Washington.”
[3 December 1781]
Whereas H. Laurens Esqr. formerly President of Congress and now invested with the character of a public Minister of the U. States, having been taken prisoner by the Enemy in his voyage to Europe, has been & still is imprisoned in G. B. under the description of a British subject suspected of High treason;1 and a considerable number of other Citizens of the U. S. made prisoners at different periods of the war have also been committed to the gaols of G. Britain under warrants from officers of Justice as traiterous subjects, and many of them are still kept in rigorous imprisonment, and in other respects treated with an ignominy & severity unbecoming the character of Prisoners of war; And Whereas, the dignity of the U. States as a sovereign & independant nation as well as justice to their injured Citizens requires that effectual measures Should be taken for relieving them from their present sufferings & procuring for them the treatment to which as prisoners of war they are entitled by the established usage of civilized nations;
Resolved That the Secretary of war2 be directed to take order for the immediate imprisonment of British Officers most eminent for birth & rank, prisoners to the U. States & not exempted therefrom by Capitulation3
Resolved That the Secretary of War be further directed to take order for the immediate imprisonment in the Mines at Simsbury in Connecticut4 or elsewhere British Soldiers with a suitable proportion of officers under the rank of field officers, prisoners to the U. States & not exempted therefrom by Capitulation, and that he cause them to be treated in all other respects in such manner as will make their situation correspond as near as may be to that of the Citizens of the U. S. prisoners in G. B.
Resolved that these resolutions shall continue in force untill authentic information shall be received by Congress that H. Laurens Esqr. and the other Citizens therein referred to have been duly exchanged, or discharged from their commitment as traiterous subjects, & treated in all respects as by the usages of war prisoners of war ought to be treated; and no longer.
Resolved That the Commander in chief be directed to transmit a copy of the preceding resolutions to the Officer commanding the forces of the King of G. B. at New York5
1. See Motion on Exchange of Prisoners of War, 22 August 1781, and n. 1.
2. Benjamin Lincoln.
3. That is, articles of capitulation, such as those made when Burgoyne and Cornwallis surrendered. For example, the Convention of Saratoga, 16 October 1777, provided that the British officers were to be paroled and that, unless a general exchange of prisoners was arranged for, the regulars in Burgoyne’s army were to be given “free passage” from Boston to Great Britain, under a pledge not to serve again in North America during the war (NA: PCC, No. 154, I, 282–85). Article XIV of the Yorktown Convention stated: “No article of the capitulation to be infringed on pretense of reprisals” (William B. Wilcox, ed., American Rebellion, p. 583).
4. At Simsbury, approximately ten miles northwest of Hartford, was Newgate Prison, which had been a copper mine until the colony of Connecticut converted it into a penitentiary. So rigorous were the conditions there that the “Mines at Simsbury,” before Connecticut abandoned them as a prison in 1827, symbolized a jail with minimum comforts and maximum discipline. A grim and detailed description of the prison, dated 25 and 29 October 1782, is in NA: PCC, No. 149, I, 327–31. As early as 11 December 1775, Washington sent to Simsbury for incarceration some “atrocious villains” convicted by courts-martial (Forrest Morgan, ed., Connecticut as a Colony and as a State; or, One of the Original Thirteen [4 vols.; Hartford, 1904], I, 505–6; II, 169; Fitzpatrick, Writings of Washington description begins John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington, from the Original Sources, 1745–1799 (39 vols.; Washington, 1931–44). description ends , IV, 155).
5. General Sir Henry Clinton. Congress referred this motion “to the Com: appointed to Confer wth G. Washington” (above, Report on Retaliation, 1 October 1781, n. 1). Washington’s dislike of a retaliatory policy, expressed in the following excerpt from his letter of 15 December 1781 to Greene, may explain why the committee seems never to have returned JM’s motion to Congress with a recommendation:
“I really know not what to say on the subject of Retaliation. Congress have it under consideration and we must await their determination. Of this I am convinced, that of all Laws it is the most difficult to execute, where you have not the transgressor himself in your possession. Humanity will ever interfere and plead strongly against the sacrifice of an innocent person for the guilt of another. And as to destruction of property within the enemys lines, it is in fact destroying our own. It will be to the eternal disgrace of the Nation, which drives us to the disagreeable necessity of thinking on means to curb their barbarity” (Fitzpatrick, Writings of Washington description begins John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington, from the Original Sources, 1745–1799 (39 vols.; Washington, 1931–44). description ends , XXIII, 391).
Washington was also unwilling to sanction retaliation because he believed that reports exaggerated the mistreatment of American prisoners of war, and he wished to do nothing which would hamper the success of his efforts to arrange with Clinton either a general cartel for the exchange of captives or at least a procedure whereby they could be provided with adequate food and clothing (ibid., XXIII, 369, 372–73, 397, 404–5, 407–9, 413, 440–41). See also Papers of Madison description begins William T. Hutchinson, William M. E. Rachal, et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison (2 vols. to date; Chicago, 1962——). description ends , I, 292, n. 10.